Immerse Journal just published (in their November/December issue) my tale of my sons’ initiation into adolescence. Here’s the story below:
On the occasion of my son Noah’s thirteenth birthday, seven men (uncles, family friends, the lone grandfather) gathered to accompany him through his passage from childhood into adolescence. It was the last Saturday of November and we’d begun the day in our living room within a wide circle of extended family. After prayers, blessings, and hugs, the men and Noah left the others and drove thirty miles up into the Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges that collide along the Oregon-California state border. While the men unpacked, Frank, an old family friend, accompanied Noah to the highest mountain peak within the Greenspring wilderness. They followed deer trails and logging roads while mulling Noah’s hopes and fears about entering his teenage years. When they reached the summit, the autumn sun was an orange poppy, wilting across waves of firs, pines, and rusted oak trees. They paused to take in the descending sky, then Frank embraced my boy, handed him a journal full of soul-searching questions, and spoke the final instructions, “When night falls and the stars begin to shine, look for a fire, then make your way. We’ll be waiting.”
On that clear November afternoon, Noah sat on the mountain and reflected on his childhood—what he would leave behind, what he would keep with him—then wrote out his prayer for the coming year. He set his book down, sat on the highest rock he could find, and silently waited for the stars to appear.
The sky darkened and Noah strained his eyes across the rolling forest, unsure which direction to look, certain the fire would be difficult to discern. What he didn’t know was that the light would be unmistakable. A group of us had found a slash-pile left by loggers that was as big as a three bedroom house. As the first stars appeared we eagerly tossed burning paper into the dried Manzanita branches, sage brush, and pine boughs until the crusted sap and dried leaves ruptured into flames over seventy feet high.
An hour later we whooped and hollered as Noah came out from the shadows of the trees and entered the great circle of light from the roaring bonfire. We embraced him, sat him down near the warmth of the fire, and handed the hungry boy a plate of meat and potatoes. “I’m glad to see you guys,” were the first words he spoke.
That night the men took turns around the circle sharing the difficulties, pleasures, and lessons learned from their own adolescent years. The stories, for the most part, were dark—broken families, physical and emotional abuse, traumatic accidents, thoughts of suicide, loneliness, heartbreak, and depression. Noah, whose childhood had been emotionally safe and loving, had no filter for the raw pain the men were disclosing. As the night deepened, I watched Noah withdraw into himself. After awhile he stopped making eye contact and as the stories continued to darken, he pulled his knees in close to his chest. By the time we came to the last story, Noah was visibly sick, his head bowed, his hands clenching his stomach. As the last man quieted, Noah walked to the edge of the clearing and began to wretch.
I knew immediately what was happening. The stories were too raw, too full of suffering. Noah was innocent. He had no way to integrate the hurt and confusion, no way to hold the unresolved pain. “Maybe it’s food poisoning.” One man offered. But I knew differently. It was the exposure to human suffering. We packed up our things and made our way through the dark woods while Noah stopped from time-to-time to get sick. When we reached the cabin, I felt anxious and protective. “That’s all for tonight,” I announced.
Noah and I withdrew into a small bedroom with a bunk bed. Noah lay silent on the upper bunk curled in a fetal position. I lay beneath him unable to sleep, fearing that this initiation had overwhelmed him. Outside our room the men gathered around the fireplace. The walls were thin and the surrounding forest silent, so their voices were audible. For some reason the conversation turned to stories of death, grief, and funerals. Already anxious about Noah’s disposition, I prayed the men would cease their dark conversation, knowing that Noah was also listening–and that the more he listened, the more sick we both felt.
It wasn’t until the early hours of the morning that the men retired and Noah drifted to sleep. In the quiet that followed, I sat and thought about what I had done. Unwittingly, I had exposed my son to the intimate reality of suffering and I knew that his body, his heart, his spirit, and mind were reeling. I felt swallowed up with anxiety, the same anxiety I felt those first nights after Noah was born when I lay awake listening to his breathing, feeling powerless to keep him safe.
It was just after sunrise when I heard Noah making his way down the bunk ladder. “How are you son?” I asked. “I feel good.” Relieved, I sat up and looked the boy over. “Really? You feel well?”
“Yea, Dad. Do you want to play ping-pong?” While the rest of the men slept, we walked through the brisk morning air to the cookhouse where we’d spied an old ping-pong table. We played, and my heart was full of laughter as I glimpsed Noah’s boyish smile. We returned to the cabin where we found our group fixing the morning’s breakfast.
We ate, packed the truck, and before descending the mountains the men encircled Noah and one-by-one gave him a blessing. We drove down into town and arrived at our church where Noah’s mother, aunts, cousins, and grandmothers greeted him in the parking lot with hugs and kisses. We entered the church, and just after the call to worship Noah stood and read the day’s scripture and opening prayer. At the close of the service he was baptized and as is our tradition, the pastor walked Noah slowly through the congregation as we sang “I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old, I rejoiced the day you were baptized to see your life unfold.”
Around the pews Noah walked with great emotion as people stepped into the aisle to reach out and greet him with, “Welcome Home.” At one point his shy, two-year old cousin Easton noticed the emotion in Noah’s eyes, leaned out of his mother’s arms, wrapped his hands around Noah’s neck and pressed his face against Noah’s cheek. Immediately Noah began to cry. Watching my son weep, my wife and I fell to pieces—had this been too hard on him? Was this the right thing to do? We were full of uncertainty.
It was a year later that I sat with an old friend who was experienced in Native American initiation ceremonies. I told Michael about my experience with Noah. When I got to the part about the men’s talk of suffering and Noah’s sickness, Michael nodded his head knowingly and said, “Sounds like the Spirit took over.” I looked at him questioningly. “You wanted a safe passage for your son. You tried to control all the variables. You wanted a symbolic act, but the Spirit intervened. A young man’s passage is always an awakening to suffering, learning to face and hold suffering. It’s about the parent’s suffering as well–the parents learning to let go and trust their son, trust the larger community, and trust God. This is what Mary ponders when Jesus escapes his family and sits with the elders in the temple as a young boy. This is what you were forced to ponder as well. Do you know the original meaning of the word initiation? It means ‘entrance’ or ‘beginning.’ This is his beginning into the work and suffering of adulthood. This is your entrance into the powerless you will now experience as he moves out from underneath your wing.”
Two years after Noah was baptized, I was back on the same mountain with many of the same men, except our plans, once again, were hi-jacked by the spirit. My sons’ birthdays are within a few days of one another, so again it was November. This particular year, however, the weather was turbulent. For two weeks we’d had a series of storms that layered nearly a foot of snow across the mountains. Worried route 66 would be impassable, we’d rounded up trucks and tire chains. With limited visibility, we made it up the twisting mountain road to the cabin. Once we arrived, we soon realized it was impossible to see, much less drive the logging roads that led back into the Greenspring mountains. So, we improvised.
I called my friend Doug who has lived on the Greensprings for over thirty years. Doug told me it was too dangerous to take Joseph up to the summit. He suggested we take the boy two miles up a road that branched off from the highway, to a place where our family had lived for a year when Joseph was six years old. The site seemed ideal. Joseph would spend the afternoon in the woods, then make the journey down the country road to where we men would gather just across the empty highway.
We drove Joseph through the deep virgin snow and left him in a cluster of Douglas Fir trees next to a creek where he once played as a child. It was early afternoon, and the snow fell like lamb’s wool from the grey sky. The woods were silent except for the creek creeping beneath a blanket of snow. Joseph was given a notebook for reflection, and left to sit and pray among the trees. We hugged him and then gave him the instructions, “When night falls, follow the road back to the highway and look for a fire. We’ll be waiting.”
Five hours later we were surrounded by darkness. The men and I stood in a circle and watched as Doug sloshed diesel fuel across a frayed, upturned tweed couch that leaned shipwrecked atop a mound of discarded wood and mill ends. With careful tending, we managed to coax the fire to life. Each man stood stranded on rocks, trying to keep our feet out of the moat of melted snow around the bonfire.
An hour after building the fire, my father-in-law spoke up, “Shouldn’t he be here by now?” By Doug’s calculations, Joseph should have taken an hour to walk the two mile road. The night was dark, the snow as thick as fog, it was possible he had taken a wrong turn, become disoriented and headed up some driveway to a mountain cabin or followed a logger’s switchback into the mountains.
“Should we look for him?” His godfather asked. “You know they spotted a mountain lion just a half mile from here,” my friend offered unhelpfully. Resisting the fear I felt welling inside, knowing that the struggle and anxiety was part of the ritual, I tried to calm the group and myself, “He’ll be here. The snow’s thick on the road. It’s just taking longer than we estimated.”
Another forty minutes passed. The phone rang. I reached in my pocket, upset that I’d left my ringer on. It was my wife. I knew she was worried by the storm and wanted assurance that Joseph was safe, but what could I tell her? I switched it off. A minute later my brother-in-law’s phone rang. “Don’t answer it.” I called across the fire. “She’ll only be more frightened if she hears he’s not here.” Jack looked at me and shrugged, “She’s my sister. I have to answer.”
He picked up the phone and we all listened, “No he’s not here. No we’re not searching. Yea it’s still snowing.” Jack pulled the phone from his ear, “She wants to talk to you.” I took the phone. Her voice was tight, frightened. I listened to my wife’s anxiety. I felt my own fears rising up, but something deep within told me this was part of it. This was the Spirit, allowing us to feel the fear and pain of letting go, of trusting our son, of trusting God, of knowing that Joseph is growing up and will enter many situations that we can’t control or manage. “Listen,” I said as calmly as I could. “He’s a smart kid. He’s strong. This is part of what’s to come. We need to wait and trust.” Jill was uncertain–and so was I. I promised her if he didn’t show up in thirty minutes we’d start searching.
We waited. It had been dark for nearly three hours. Joseph was two hours past the time we had calculated. My father-in-law spoke, “Isn’t there a millpond next to the highway? It’s covered by snow. It probably looks like a vacant field. Joseph might’ve tried to cross it and fallen in.” Now the group was alarmed and began to analyze the possibility of Joseph falling into the pond. Some left the fire and tried to peer across the darkness. Other men tried to assess whether the pond would be frozen enough for Joseph to walk out to its center where he’d be endangered.
Half the group had resolved to go out and search for my son, but for some reason, for some unexplainable reason, my heart was full of trust. I trusted Joseph. Despite the knowledge that things go wrong, kids get hurt, tragedy happens, still I trusted. Remembering the words of my friend Michael, I trusted that the fear and the unknowing were part of the change that was taking place. This was the initiation.
“Let’s stay here.” I said as firmly as I could. “He’ll make it.” The men went silent. Thirty minutes passed. The phone began to ring. “It’s Jill!” my father-in-law announced. I walked over to the phone, carefully preparing my words when someone cried out, “There he is!” We looked across the mill yard and saw a tall (6’2”), dark outline leaning forward into the wind and falling snow. He was about a hundred yards from us, moving slowly, his legs calf-deep in white. “Tell Jill he’s here,” I called to my father-in-law. We stood relieved and smiling at the edge of the fire as Joseph shuffled toward us. He entered the firelight and we noticed his pant legs were soaked, but his face was beaming. He raised his hands in victory, “I made it!” he announced. One by one we embraced him and patted him on the back Then we anxiously waited to hear his story.
“I could hardly see the road through the snowfall. I walked with my head down trying to make sure I didn’t go off the road. It was silent, but every once in awhile I heard this small sound of rattling keys. Every step I took, I heard these keys rattling behind me until I knew someone with a keychain was following me. I prayed and prayed for God to protect me. Eventually I got the courage to stop and turn around, but as soon as I did the noise stopped, and the person following me stayed still, just out of sight. At one point I got scared and started running. I ran and ran but I could hear the keys jangling faster, as if the person was running too. Through the trees I saw the lights of a ranch house and decided to turn and ask for help. I ran across this field, and then all of a sudden I fell. I fell into this ditch, some irrigation ditch that was waist deep with water. Still frightened and shocked by the freezing water I quickly climbed up the bank. As I climbed out I noticed my zipper on my jacket made the same noise as the rattling keys. Then I realized what was happening. There was no one after me. It was just the sound of my zipper jangling as I walked. It took me awhile to find the road back to the highway, but eventually I did. I walked the rest of the way thinking about how I had created my own fear and how I’d almost seriously hurt myself running from it. I started to get really cold, but then I saw that fire glowing through the trees, and I just started smiling knowing that all of you were waiting.”
We went back to the cabin and Joseph peeled off his wet clothes and sat in front of the fireplace while we roasted meat and potatoes. He sat and listened as the men told stories from their own teen years, stories of heartbreak, fear, and uncertainty. Joseph listened carefully, but he was so grateful to be dry and safe that the suffering stories didn’t seem to disturb him. After each man had said his piece, Joseph asked if we could play some music. We broke out guitars and harmonicas, mandolins and violins, drums and ukuleles, and belted out the words to the Waterboy’s Fisherman’s Blues:
And I know I will be loosened,
from the bonds that hold me fast,
and the chains all around me
will fall away at last
and on that grand and fateful day
I will take thee in my hand
I will ride on a train
I will be the fisherman
With light in my head
You in my arms…
The next morning the sun was shining and the world was thick and white. We chained up the trucks and made the slow trek out of the mountains and down into town where once again our extended family met us at the entrance to the church. Joseph was mobbed with kisses from his mother and then he went and sat in the first pew between his sister and brother. At the close of the service, he went to the piano and played a song he had composed for the occasion. He sat in a red dress shirt with a black vest and black pants, his hair wild and wiry. His song began with a child-like melody that grew in complexity, speed, and power. He pressed his foot down on the brass pedals and pounded out a cascade of chords, and letting his right hand improvise various runs across the upper register. He played and played, and as he played I began to weep—with gratitude that Joseph was safe, with gratitude that God had given me this boy who was now on his way to becoming a man, with gratitude that the Spirit was teaching me to resist the fear of adolescence, to trust that the sons we had raised will grow into men, men who can carry suffering, men who can face fear, men who can be trusted to find their way home.